Ten years on, a wall still divides Germany
`Comedy shows on TV would be a lot duller without the sterotypical dumb, workshy Ossi'
Saturday 06 November 1999
You can now shop till you drop in the "New Lander", especially if you belong to the one in four without a real job. The dole cheques are generous. No one need go hungry in this deep-pocketed welfare state.
There is much to celebrate in "Neuland", the literary name for the Federal Republic's eastern marches. On Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Germans will flock to the Brandenburg Gate to do just that. A street party is planned, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush will put in a festive appearance, and the newly restored glass dome of the Reichstag will be lit up for the occasion. Too bad none of the East German activists who led the peaceful revolution against the Communist regime has been invited to the festivities.
But then, what Germany is cheering is a west German achievement. What happened on 9 November 1989 is seen by the majority as a mere prelude to the gargantuan job of welding the two countries together, road by road, bridge by bridge. The real heroes of reunification, as any "Wessi" will tell any number of "Ossis" at the first opportunity, are the honest west German workers who by the sweat of their brow made the east German junkyard blossom.
There are statistics to prove their selfless devotion. More than DM1,000bn of public money has been pumped into the former GDR in the past decade. Some DM150bn is still flowing into the east, financed by the "solidarity surcharge" that lightens all West German pay packets. The east, those parts that still work, repays this investment with productivity levels only 60 per cent of those in the west.
Look behind the figures, though, and the arithmetic changes dramatically. More than 90 per cent of east Germany's productive capital is in the hands of west Germans. The vast majority of public funds disbursed for reconstruction, therefore, go through their hands, with the profits flowing back to western coffers. West German industry has done rather well out of reunification, thank you very much.
As for productivity, the figures reflect the low level of equipment in the - mainly western-owned - factories. Plants with similar levels of technology to those of the west weigh in with similar or higher production figures. Witness the Opel factory in Eisenach, reckoned to be among the world's most efficient.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that most of east Germany remains a basket case. How its dependency came about is still being debated 10 years on. Some economists blame Mr Kohl's decision to swap the enfeebled East German currency for West German marks at the rate of one to one. Others say it was the unions - all West German, incidentally - that pushed wages in the new Lander to near Western levels too quickly, thus pricing their lower-skilled members out of the market. The result is that unemployment is twice as high in the east as it is in the west, not counting make-work schemes designed to keep the official figures just about tolerable.
The intra-German dialogue - if you can describe the permanent slanging- match between Ossis and Wessis as such - does not quite rise to these academic heights. Comedy shows on German television, such as they are, would be a lot poorer if they had to manage without the stereotypical dumb, workshy Ossi. As in: "What is the difference between an Ossi and a Turkish Gastarbeiter?" Answer: "The Turk has a job, and can speak German."
No, there is not much love lost between the two communities. The east, as westerners point out, wanted to be taken over, and had its wish fulfilled. End of story.
There is, though, some hope for the future. The younger generation, at least in the east, is less conscious of its separate identity than are its parents. Given time, the two communities will grow together. But economists believe that it will take another 20 years before the wealth of Germany's two nations will equalise. In the interim, however, the prosperous west is saddled with an eastern Mezzogiorno.
That is good news for Baroness Thatcher and her like, who fretted a decade ago about what reunification could do to German might. In the event, it has created a continuing drain on the country's resources that should keep Europe's biggest economic power out of mischief for longer than anyone expected 10 years ago.
There has certainly been little evidence to show Germany, suddenly 80- million strong, bulging out of its boots. Apart from one tempestuous stab early on at an independent foreign policy in the Balkans, Germany's leaders have shown little inclination to revive Bismarckian habits. Mr Kohl happily signed the cheques that kept the EU in harmony, and even his more boisterous successor Gerhard Schroder has calmed down since his early days. Attaining linguistic parity with Finnish in the EU now seems to be the limit of Germany's ambition.
Berlin is still not much closer to becoming the capital of Europe than it was a decade ago. That may yet happen one day, for Germany's influence is undoubtedly growing. It will happen when the country finds unity at last. Come back in a decade or two.
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